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Tricks and Treats In Horror Movies
Richard Maxwell

Since the techniques of the German Expressionist film reached Hollywood in the 1930's, America has experienced regular waves of interest in cinematic horror. We have absorbed successively the Dracula and Frankenstein films of James Whale and Tod Browning, the science fiction films of the fifties, the Roger Corman-Edgar Allan Poe extravaganzas of the Kennedy era, and most recently an avalanche of movies about Satanic or psychokinetic children. The catalogue is historical, and it is true that for the film historian each of these fashions has a unique artistic or economic significance. For most of us, on the other hand, memory—with an assist from late-night TV—acts in an eternal present, which means that despite many sep­arable traditions and intentions in horror films, we often have to think of them as forming one vast myth­ology. Aesthetically, Whale's Bride of Frankenstein is near the top of the horror film list and the The Blob near the bottom. Economically, The Exorcist has tremendous significance and Val Lewton's RKO thrillers relatively little. All the same, those many distinct thrillers achieve in retrospect a numb­ing simultaneity. For the horror film addict there is always a first-rate nightmare in the workings. This night­mare might very well take the form of one of those unforunate Abbott and Costello parodies, where we get not one but many monsters running around in the same stretched plot.

The difficulty of separating out horror films from the mass, of seeing them as individual works and so being able to evaluate them critically, is reflected in the reception of two recent efforts in the genre: Magic and Halloween. Andrew Sarris notes of Magic that "the plot may strike some viewers and reviewers as a cross between Psycho and the ventriloquist episode with Michael Redgrave in Dead of Night." Tom Allen—writing, like Sarris, in the Village Voice — attempts to link Halloween with Psycho on the rather feeble ground that "Carpenter has attempted to stretch the shower se­quence [of Psycho] into as much of a feature film as the traffic will allow." He goes on to cite five or six other films (even Vincente Minelli's musical Meet Me in St. Louis is cited!) until we have lost all sense of what Halloween, in and of itself, could possibly offer us. Apparently this movie exists only to confirm the generative power of the horror genre, whose masterpieces, if there are any, produce countless variations on themselves . . . with no end in sight.1

I do not mean to be complaining about the learnedness of Sarris or Allen, however; this swamping of the individual work with references to its predecessors seems one natural way to solve the difficulties of evaluating horror movies. We can see why by glancing at Psycho, which is indeed a presence in many subsequent films. Most moviegoers will remember the sensation Psycho made when it first came out. I recall it most vividly because my mother would not let me go see it. There were good reasons for this aura of taboo, one of the most important being Alfred Hitchcock's reputation up to that point. Hitch­cock was—and is, for that matter—a witty, detached, intellectual director. Consequently, the gut terror of the shower scene and many other sequences came as a special shock. What had wit to do with all that blood running so sickeningly down the drain? Quite a bit, as it happens. The effective horror films have always dealt with a void: an unknowable blankness, a kind of anonymous evil. Just because this darkness cannot be defined, the creator of the horror film must become a virtuoso, an artist committed before anything else to tricks, sleight-of-hand, magic. To the extent that it is success­ful, the horror film ends up surrounding the void with a great variety of ingenuities and manipulations. Eventually—by a miracle of sorts—trickery must shade back into art.

Tricks may differ from film to film: horror, the most depersonalized of emotions, is always the same. The impact of Psycho depends largely on Hitchcock's ability to play the two things off against one another. The complexity of technique in the film makes the schizophrenic killer all the more threatening—our consciousness that we are being manipulated infil­trates our unequivocal horror at the murders. Previous films had attempted something like this synthesis but Hitchcock was the first to make a film so frightening and so interesting too.

Since 1960, a number of directors have tried to match the accomplish­ment of Psycho. Most conspicuous in the last few years was Brian DePalma's Sisters, which alternated between slav­ish imitation and attempts to outdo Hitchcock by way of sheer excessiveness (the opening scene, where a key character wins a set of knives on a quiz show, is still very funny). Now come Magic and Halloween. Magic is a respectable movie, the sort of thing that could win an academy award. Such an award would not be wholly inappropriate, since the film is a showcase for a brilliant performance by Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins plays a magician who has made it big by adding a ventriloquist's dummy to his show. The dummy assumes a life of its own, driving the shy and self-deprecating Hopkins character to murder. The most important relation­ship in the film is, of course, the one between Hopkins ("Corky") and the dummy ("Fats"); the plot comes to its crisis-points because Burgess Mere­dith and Ann-Margaret make their various demands on the newly-famous magician, and Fats, who is always talking back to his owner, finds reason for jealousy. All this is spooky enough, most spooky when we are not yet sure that the dummy has assumed control over his master.

After the question of power is re­solved, perhaps a third of the way into the film, the plot works itself out with a rigorous inevitability—a neat­ness almost too perfect. There is one good, low-key surprise near the end; nonetheless, the film is essentially a bore. The blame, I think, must lie primarily with the writer. Neither in William Goldman's original novel nor in his adaptation of it for the screen are we allowed to understand much about Corky; Goldman lacks the skill to show the process by which the dummy takes over, which leaves us with a fait accompli: a starting-point that (as Sarris points out) leads no­where. Lurking somewhere at the back of the script is one last interesting idea—we could possibly see the story as a conflict in interpretation whereby magic is a metaphor either for love or for power. Goldman starts to develop this notion but loses the thread halfway through. The director, as a conse­quence, has little to work with. A craftsmanlike movie finally flops.

Unlike Magic, Halloween has no outstanding performance. Donald Pleasance is hustled on and off screen a few times; during each appearance, he speaks poorly-written lines about a psychopathic killer he is tracking. Apart from Pleasance, the significant characters are two children, three high school girls, and the killer. The latter—who never speaks and whom we never see clearly—has returned to the midwestern town where, as a Halloween trick-or-treater, he mur­dered his sister. Now, after years of incarceration, he is back on the job. It is once again Halloween night. Amid often funny vignettes about small-town midwestern life, the killer dispatches one victim after another until our heroine, with the assistance of Pleasance, dispatches him (more or less).

Halloween is furthest from Magic in that it prompts no questions about motivation whatsoever. The movie exploits our expectation that a shad­owy, sinister figure who has been typed as a homocidal maniac will eventually kill some people. He does precisely this, with a calm insatiability. We are not allowed to ask ourselves where his mania comes from; we simply confront it as a fact. Despite this apparent limitation, Halloween is a great success. Director John Carpenter really has managed to rival Psycho—not because he extends Hitchcock's famous shower scene but because he has grasped the peculiar relationship in the horror movie of tricks and out-and-out evil. Goldman fails to develop the magic metaphor to any meaningful extent; Carpenter uses the tradition of Halloween as an insidiously bril­liant metaphor. This is the clearest in the climactic scene of the movie where—by a means that I hesitate to reveal—murder is presented as a ghastly kind of trick-or-treat prank. This identification sounds absurd on paper; on film it perfectly highlights the horrifying malignancy of the killer. There may be something else of importance in the scene too. What the heroine experiences is irrational in terms of the plot thus far. We almost feel that it is the director rather than the killer who wants to frighten her. Again, this ambiguity could be a weakness but turns out to be a strength. Halloween acknowledges its own trick­eries as well as those of the killer; Carpenter is raising the most intrigu­ing problems about the moral status of a film whose main purpose is to scare us. Halloween has no profound answers but the questions are asked effectively enough to elicit admiration.

I have focused on the one central scene; the film as a whole is in much the same mode. Throughout, Carpen­ter is interested in a dialectic between childish fears and murderous reality, phenomena which illuminate one another by appearing to merge, then suddenly separating, and then merg­ing again. As we watch the film we are never permitted to forget that the killer is out there in the dark some­where. Simultaneously, Halloween manages to surround its villain with the doubts, fears, trickeries, and eva­sions that ordinarily accompany the human recognition of evil. Even Pleasance—the most humorless character in a movie full of odd quirks—cannot resist a bit of Halloween trick­ery. He crouches behind a bush and scares some small boys who are brav­ing the local haunted house—the scene of that murder which sent the killer to an asylum in the first place.

Ultimately, this film gives us a rather striking idea of how fear devel­ops in people as they grow up. Carpenter, for the purposes of Halloween anyway, is interested in children more than in adults, in teenagers more than in children.2 Teenagers, after all, are neither adults nor children; in this film they play both roles with a vengeance and so confront the killer from a disorienting variety of per­spectives, both mature and childish. Halloween, like other films in the genre, may recede into that vast mythology or horror experienced in the haziness of memory or the even greater haziness of late-night TV. The movie deserves to survive in some form. Carpenter's effort to define the undefinable—to play with horror even as he unleashes it—has a nearly heroic breadth in a tradition not noted for its panoramic ambitions.

 

Notes:

1. The same rule no doubt applies to other popular cinematic genres, but it seems to be strongest in horror movies—for reasons described below.

2. This is not true of another Carpenter film, Someone is Watching Me, made for and shown on NBC in November, 1978; this second film shows further striking aspects of Carpenter's way with the horror movie.

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